Lessons From the Field: a Conversation With Networking Expert Van Allen
When you are a networker, you meet a lot of other networkers. If you meet enough networkers, you tend to meet some that do it well — and these people can definitely teach you a thing or two. If you’re lucky, some of those connections will turn out to be more than just Rolodex fodder.
Such is the case for me with Van Allen. I’ve known Van for well over a decade. He’s a consummate networker — but more than that, he’s a natural networker. Van’s the kind of guy who genuinely enjoys meeting people, which is an asset in his line of work – physician recruiting.
Van is the founder and president of The Hire Connection in Osage Beach, Missouri. I recently asked Van a few questions about his approach to and experiences with networking in order to pass on some of his wisdom to my readers. I hope you find the conversation illuminating.
[Ed. Note: Don't have time to read the whole conversation right now? Check out Mike's helpful summary of the key lessons Van taught him, located at the bottom of this post.]
Mike: For starters, how long have you been in your industry, and what were you doing before you realized physician recruiting was your thing?
Van Allen: I was in Nashville chasing the music dream in 1992 when, needing a way to make a few dollars, I responded to a Sunday classified ad for medical recruiters in the Dallas Morning News. I didn’t know a thing about the business and, quite honestly, I faxed my resume not expecting a call back – which is exactly what happened. So I got proactive, reached out to the company, and got the job. It didn’t take long for me to realize I liked the work and was good at it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mike: Networking and building trust-based relationships is a big part of your day-to-day. What are your keys to success? What are your non-negotiables for getting to know both the organizations and the physicians you work with?
Van: As cliche as this may sound, my golden rule is to be genuine and authentic in all aspects of life if you want to build winning relationships. Too often, people have a professional persona, a friends persona, and a spouse persona – instead of just being themselves. It might be something as simple as a change in the tone of voice when they go from a business to a personal conversation, or it could be more pronounced, but the change is there. That’s a lot of work when compared to just being yourself.
But there’s a reason you have a circle of close friends who cherish your relationship with them, and that will be the same reason you’ll win hearts and minds in the business world. I also tell people to keep in mind that every relationship comes full circle, so don’t burn bridges. Spend your life pushing as many people as you can up the ladder, and there will always be someone to pull you up when you need it.
As for non-negotiables: Don’t ever devalue your product just to get a deal done. If you are not having success, it’s probably because you are not adequately conveying the value of your product or that you haven’t created enough value in your product. Instead of undercutting yourself, evaluate your situation, pivot, and change the ways you are doing things.
Mike: What are the tell-tale signs you look for to determine whether the other party is not a good fit for you, whether it’s a hospital or clinic where you wouldn’t be comfortable placing someone or a candidate who might be looking for a new role?
Van: There are some basic criteria I look for when determining whether both parties are going to have success in a potential professional relationship.
First, the client has to sing from the same hymnal as we are or we will send very mixed and confusing signals to our candidates. My recruiters are the first line of defense when it comes to sourcing and presenting an opportunity, and their success is contingent upon the client reinforcing what my recruiters deliver to the candidate in terms of the opportunity. Honest communication is critical to achieving message consistency and moving the ball down the field.
I apply the same policy with a candidate as I do with the client, and that is full disclosure about the details of the position. I also provide full disclosure with the client about the candidate. You never have to worry about covering your tracks if you live by that simple creed.
Mike: How do you manage the boundaries of personal and professional life in a business world that expects an ‘always on’ attitude, and how do you balance that with a drive to succeed in a hyper-competitive industry?
Van: It is possible to strike a balance and still not possess an ‘off’ button. In this day and age, with the technology that is available to everyone, you should always be accessible to your clients and to your team – but set reasonable expectations. If you have an 8-5 approach to business, then you should expect an 8-5 paycheck.
You will always have to make some concessions to your career in order to achieve a desired level of success, but that doesn’t mean giving up your life. Today’s mobile technology not only enables us to be ‘always on,’ but it also allows you to manage responses and expectations. Rather than feel like you are tethered to a device, think of it as being available to those that afford you the lifestyle you desire to maintain.
Mike: When you engage in a first conversation, what is typically the first thing you notice – both positive and negative?
Van: Most people are guarded when it comes to a first conversation, whether it’s in person or over the phone, so you need to make them feel at ease. Dale Carnegie always said the quickest way to make a friend is to get the other person to talk about who they are, because it is a topic they know well. Make the conversation about the person in front of you rather than about you, and you will succeed. Then, it’s your job to build confidence and trust that you have a potential solution for the challenge they are facing and engage in genuine conversation.
Mike: What ace do you have up your sleeve when networking? What would someone be surprised to learn about you when you first meet?
Van: I like to know a little about everything and not a lot about any one thing. For example, my passion is golf, but not everyone wants to talk about where you’ve played or what club you used to hit your first hole in one. I don’t fish or hunt or do needlepoint, but I truly love hearing about someone else’s passions, what they do to take a mental escape. This world would be boring if everyone took golf as seriously as I did.
And I always stay neutral when discussing politics, which can surface from time to time.
Mike: When you walk into a room at a business function, what are you looking for when you survey the landscape? Is it body language, the way someone is dressed, what they are doing to keep occupied?
Van: You can’t possibly anticipate every scenario that presents itself, or answer every question asked, but you should always be prepared to remain in control and have at least 95 percent of your playbook memorized, rather than wing it.
I present at board meetings quite often, and members of the board seldom agree on anything, so I look for those that make eye contact with me when I am speaking, and I can tell are engaged in my information. My job as a presenter of information is to be prepared, clear-minded, and relaxed when I am in front of any audience, regardless of the size and irrespective of the material I am delivering. If I’m prepared – and I am – I know I can earn their respect. But there will always be those who play ‘stump the chump’ with a question that is framed to purposely put me in an uncomfortable position. If I can, I’ll answer the question with confidence. If I don’t have an answer, I’ll say so and ask the person if I can get back with an answer.
Mike: You knew Zig Ziglar, one of the greatest networkers and motivational speakers of all time. What did you lean from him?
Van: I wouldn’t say I had a personal relationship with Zig, but I did attend a Sunday school class he taught when I lived in Dallas. There are so many endearing qualities he possessed, but his consistency in his faith and his walk with God always blew my mind. He walked the walk and inspired so many to do the same thing. By the way, there were 1,500 people who showed up for his class each Sunday.
He was one of the great story tellers of his time, and although I will never reach his level, I do try and emulate his ability to weave life lessons into his stories. He was a one of a kind. A gentleman that worked with him by the name of Bryan Flanagan was also a great influence in my life. Bryan is still out there speaking to large audiences and helping companies be better at what they do.
A Summary of Key Points From the Conversation:
- Be proactive and chase down your opportunities. Don’t wait for them to come to you.
- Be genuine in every aspect of your life. Don’t construct a professional persona you have to put on.
- Be open and honest in all communication.
- Be available to your clients when they need you. They’re the ones who pay the bills.
- Be sure the conversation is about the person in front of you, not about you.
- Be interested in what interests others.
- Be prepared and be confident in any scenario.
- Be consistent and help people be better at what they do.